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What About The Thief on the Cross?

One of the most frequently heard objections to baptism for the forgiveness of sins is the case of the thief on the cross. It demands our most careful attention.

The Account and Sequence of Events:

Luke 23:32-34; John 19:18 … Matthew 27:38,44; Mark 15:27-28,32 … Luke 23:32-43

The Critical Understanding the Covenants:

Hebrews 8:7-13 and Hebrews 9:11-28 and Hebrews 10:19-25

One of the most important aspects of the “thief on the cross” argument centers on the fact that the thief was “saved without baptism.” Let’s be very clear right here. Yes, he was saved without "baptism"! Let’s also be just as clear about the covenants. The fact is everyone was saved without "baptism" before the New Covenant. And, everyone during the life ministry of Christ – and up to the Day of Pentecost was saved without "baptism." Well, perhaps we need to think a little more deeply on all of this ...

All this is true except in the typological understanding of the laver and the washings of the Old Covenant where water and washings were everywhere required and symbolized! See Exodus 30:17-21; 40:12,30; I Kings 7:23-40; etc. Even before the Law was given Israel was "baptized unto Moses." See I Corinthians 10:1-4. (And what about Naaman the leper and Elisha? See II Kings 5:1-19. What is this story really all about?) And keep in mind there was also a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" by John the Baptizer that was preparing Israel for the salvation of the Lord. See Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3. Thus, anyone who says that there were no "baptisms" in the Old Testament that foreshadowed those (i.e., that) of the New Covenant does not understand the typology of the Bible.

Consider another case of forgiveness in the Gospels – the first case where Jesus forgave someone’s sins:

Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26

What are we to make of this most unusual case of Jesus forgiving sins “without baptism”? He saw their faith and forgave the paralytic his sins. Can we use this case – like that of the thief on the Cross – as the supreme example of our conversion and how we specifically need to be saved? If not, why not? The fact is both cases of Jesus forgiving sin during his earthly ministry were teaching something far more important than that. They were proving who Jesus was and is and that he is the loving and merciful Lord God who has all authority to forgive sin! These two cases (and the others where Jesus in his earthly ministry forgave sins) are no more templates for what we must specifically do to be saved any more than any case of the forgiveness of sins before Pentecost.

It All Comes Down To This:

When our Lord forgave the thief on the cross at the end of his life ministry or the paralytic at the beginning of his life ministry, he did so by his authority as God while the Old Covenant was still in force. The New Covenant was not in effect until after Jesus died. (But, of course, the terms of the New Covenant were announced in both the Old Testament and in the life ministry of Jesus Christ recorded in the Gospels.) This is the very clear teaching of Galatians 4:4 and Hebrews 9:11-28 ? Specifically focus on Hebrews 9:16-17 and consider when the terms of a "will" or "testament" actually go into effect! (They go into effect when the one who makes the will dies, and not before then!) The terms of that New Covenant were then clearly stated on the Day of Pentecost by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2:21,37-39,41f ... and they included baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

It should be noted that in Hebrews, the writer goes on to say that because Jesus is our great priest over the house of God we should, "draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, and having our bodies washed with pure water." How is this not a clear reference to faith, repentance and baptism? Compare Hebrews 10:19-23 with Acts 22:10,16 and Titus 3:3-8 (John 3:3,5). The Hebrew writer then exhorts us to "hold unswervingly to the hope of our confession."

Now what are you going to do about the thief on the Cross? It is interesting that when the “thief on the cross” argument against baptism is dealt with properly most will still not accept baptism for the forgiveness of sins, proving that unbelief rather than a simple, trusting, obedient faith is the real problem. (Remember, no one is so blind as he who will not see!) So, what are you going to do with baptism for the forgiveness of sins? From the Day of Pentecost on, baptism for the forgiveness of sins was clearly proclaimed. See Acts 2:38-39. (There are just too many passages that when properly understood clearly teach the necessary and essential place of baptism for the forgiveness of sins: Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38-41,47; 22:16; Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 2:9-15; I Peter 3:20-22; etc. And there are just too many passages that must be understood to involve baptism for the forgiveness of sins: John 3:3,5; I Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:5; 5:26; Titus 3:4-7; Hebrews 10:22; etc.) It is amazing how so many men will do anything to get out of simply doing what God says. If for nothing else, do it for love of God. See John 3:16,19-21,36; 14:15,21-24; 15:10-14; I John 2:3-5; 5:3 … Galatians 5:6 – “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (I Corinthians 7:19 – "Doing what God commands is what counts.")

Remember: A faith that will not do (obey) what God says for the reasons God gives is no faith at all!

We are not saved by “faith only” we are saved only by the obedience of faith!

POINT AND COUNTERPOINT: There are a lot of specious arguments made against baptism that only seek to get around what God says. Some of them amount to no more than the “what ifs” that men in all their humanly devised and demonically inspired wisdom invent to justify themselves rather than God. Perhaps one of the most frequently used in conjunction with the thief on the Cross argument is this one: “What if someone dies before they are baptized, will they still be saved?” To this I would kindly reply, “How dare you impugn the justice and mercy and goodness of the sovereign Lord God of All! And how dare you doubt and deny the power of his Word!” See Matthew 22:29; Mark 12:24. Anyone who proposes this argument betrays their sinful unbelief. (May it not be willful!) The plain and simple answer is found in Philippians 1:3-6. Do you see it? Believe it! Beloved, beware the extreme danger of ever trying to trap God in his words by finding some supposed contradiction in his Word. Don’t play that deadly game – you will lose! Consider Romans 3:3-4.

Also, consider the following miscellaneous principles in light of the question of baptism for the forgiveness of sins: When God says that we are saved by grace and when God says that we are saved by faith (Romans and Galatians) and when he says we are saved by works (James) we must accept all as being God’s truth. We must ever seek to respect the principle of the “harmony of faith” (i.e., harmonize all truth with faith) and submit to all of the will of God in every area of our lives … even if there are some things we do not fully understand. See I Corinthians 1:18-31.

Dear friend, the last thing that we must ever do when it comes to baptism for the forgiveness of sins is to make it a work of man's human effort rather than the working of God and his Spirit. To do so is blasphemy! See I Corinthians 12:13 ? Colossians 2:11-12 (John 3:3-8; Titus 3:3-8). And, it is most foolhardy to obscure baptism by saying that the baptism that saves is only spiritual and figurative and has nothing to do with actual immersion in water. See Acts 8:26-40; 10:47; etc. There is one baptism and that baptism is of "water and spirit." See Ephesians 4:5 and John 3:3,5 ... Titus 3:3-8 cf. Acts 22:16; I Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:25-27. It should be noted that it is only in relatively modern times that the doctrines and dogmas of men have separated saving baptism from water baptism. No matter what men say there is still one and only one baptism and the saving power of baptism lies not in the "water" but in God alone! Consider I Peter 3:21-22 and answer the following question: Which do you believe, "Baptism does not save you" or "Baptism does now save you"? The doctrines of men say that "baptism does not save." But the Word of God says, "baptism does now save you."

It is amazing that those who say they believe in "faith only" don't believe in what the Lord really says about the "obedience of faith" or about "baptism for the forgiveness of sins." If you don't believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, how is it that you "believe" at all? Beloved, think on these things.

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